Birthday: November 15, 1919
Died At Age: 97
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Also Known As: Joseph Albert Wapner
Born Country: United States
Born in: Los Angeles, California, United States
Famous as: Judge
Height: 6'2" (188 cm), 6'2" Males
Spouse/Ex-: Mickey Wapner (m. 1946)
father: Max Wapner
mother: Fannie Friedman
children: David Miron-Wapner, Fred Wapner, Sarah Wapner
Died on: February 26, 2017
place of death: Los Angeles, California, United States
Cause of Death: Respiratory Insufficiency
U.S. State: California
City: Los Angeles
education: USC Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, Hollywood High School
Joseph Wapner was an American judge and television personality who is best known for appearing as the first and sole presiding judge of the reality court show 'The People's Court' during its first installment that ran for 12 seasons. He remained the longest-reigning arbiter at 'The People's Court' for two decades after his tenure before Marilyn Milian took over the title from him on the revived version of the show. As a judge, he briefly served at the Los Angeles Municipal Court before being appointed to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. He had previously served in the US Army during the Second World War and was a practicing attorney for a decade. He also served as a judge on Animal Planet's nontraditional reality court show 'Judge Wapner's Animal Court' and appeared as himself on several other television series, including multiple appearances on 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson'.
Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Albert Wapner was born on November 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, California, United States, into the Jewish family of Fannie and Joseph Max Wapner. His father, a lawyer, had migrated from Romania, while his mother was originally from Russia.
He attended Hollywood High School before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the University of Southern California in 1941. He later received a law degree from the USC Law School in 1948.
Following graduation, he served in the US Army during World War II and was assigned in the South Pacific in Cebu, where he risked his life to save a wounded soldier and was himself wounded. He was honored with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his services before being honorably discharged from the army as a lieutenant.
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After obtaining his law degree, Joseph Wapner spent 10 years practicing privately as an attorney before Governor Pat Brown appointed him to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959. Two years later, he was elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court where he served for 18 years until his retirement from the court on November 16, 1979.
During his service on the Superior Court bench, he was elected by his colleagues as the presiding judge in 1969 and 1970. In 1975-76, judges statewide appointed him the president of the California Judges Association.
The People's Court
Joseph Wapner, who often spent time on the tennis court as well, was introduced to producers Ralph Edwards and Stu Billett, who were creating a reality court show, by a tennis partner. Wapner provided the right balance between "legal prowess and broad appeal" that they were looking for and became the first judge to preside over 'The People's Court'.
Wapner agreed to appear on the show because he realized that the producers had researched for 4-5 years to ascertain the authenticity of the show. He also liked the fact that he was able to clarify his decisions, which he could not in small claims court.
The pilot episode on the show was taped in October 1980 and the half-hour program began airing in syndication on September 14, 1981. The series, which turned real-life litigation into a television game show, saw him conducting a binding arbitration resembling small claims court by pitting defendants and plaintiffs against each other, without lawyers.
He continued to serve as the judge on the show for 12 seasons until 1993, with Rusty Burrell as his bailiff, Jack Harrell as the announcer, and Doug Llewelyn as the host and court reporter. By the time the series was put on hold due to low ratings, he had appeared in a total of 2,340 half-hour episodes.
The show remained off-air for four years to not hurt Wapner's feelings, but it was revived in 1997 as a 60-minute show with a new judge at the helm. Wapner, who was offended that he was not informed about the revamped show, did not watch it or comment on the new judges who appeared on the show.
He received a star on the 'Hollywood Walk of Fame' on November 12, 2009, as the second television jurist after 'Judge Judy' famed Judith Sheindlin, whose courtroom approach he was publicly critical of. The next day, two days before his 90th birthday, he made a special appearance on 'The People's Court' as a guest judge besides Marilyn Milian.
Two years after 'The People's Court' began airing, Joseph Wapner was mentioned in a 'Special Thanks' note on the back cover of Alice Cooper's 1983 album 'DaDa'. He recalled some of his favorite cases during his 20-year-long career in his 1987 book 'A View from the Bench'.
Between 1984 and 1987, he made four guest appearances on 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson', the best of which was alongside another popular late night host, David Letterman, on June 27, 1986. He settled a dispute between Carson and Letterman over damaged headlight of the latter's pickup truck after the former towed it to his stage, and granted Letterman $24.95 in compensation.
He returned to television in 1998 to host the nontraditional courtroom series 'Judge Wapner's Animal Court' on Animal Planet, which ran for two seasons. During 1999-2000, he appeared on several print and television ads for the specialty finance company, Singer Asset Finance Company, LLC, as its national spokesperson.
He appeared as himself on several television shows such as 'The Pat Sajak Show', 'One on One with John Tesh', 'Sliders', 'Muppets Tonight', 'Sunset Beach', as well as the documentary 'Actors in War'. In 1999, he appeared on an episode of 'Malcolm & Eddie' as 'Commissar Wapner' in a criminal court version of 'The People's Court' set in a fictional America under Soviet conquest.
In August 2008, he was the judge on the pregame parody segment called 'The Players Court' in 'Major League Baseball on Fox'. In 2010, American soda company chain Rocket Fizz began marketing the 'Judge Wapner Root Beer' with the slogan, "I sentence you to drink my root beer."
Family & Personal Life
Joseph Wapner married Mildred 'Mickey' Nebenzahl on October 24, 1946, and they had three children: sons David Miron-Wapner and Frederick Nathan Wapner, and daughter Sarah. Both of his sons became attorneys, with Frederick eventually becoming a judge at the Los Angeles County Superior Court’ His daughter, Sarah, died from heart disease in May 2015.
At the age of 97, he died from respiratory failure on February 26, 2017, at his home in Los Angeles, and was buried at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, sister Irene, two sons, four grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.
He actively participated in various Jewish causes and was on the board of Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. He took the initiative for the school's merger with the University of Judaism in Bel Air to create the American Jewish University in March 2007.
Joseph Wapner wanted to be an actor when he was studying in Hollywood High School, but was told by a theatre director that he possessed no talent for the art. Also in school, he had arranged for a date with Judy Turner, future actress Lana Turner, after spotting her in the school library, but she had to pay because he had forgotten his wallet.